The Vexed Meaning of Equality in Gilded Age America

All men are created equal.” Today, it is difficult to appreciate the radicalism of Thomas Jefferson’s almost matter-of-fact pronouncement in the Declaration of Independence. The 18th century was a world of inequality, grounded in deeply rooted hierarchies of class, race, gender, and religion. The Declaration of Independence tied the new American nation’s fate to the ideal of equality. Jefferson’s words provided a standard by which people could judge their society and, not infrequently, find it wanting. Ever since, a perceived lack of equality has been the catalyst for powerful social movements in the United States and abroad.

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